Fare is Fare – Taiheiyo Ferry – Reviewed

Recently we embarked on a journey to Sapporo for their Snow Festival. We live in Sendai and there are only two airlines that have regular service to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Nearly all flight plans will take you through Osaka or Tokyo a.k.a. “the wrong direction” before they put you on the frozen tarmac of Hokkaido’s main airport. Flights are around $230 one way from Sendai! Then there is shinkansen or hi-speed train. If you live in Aomori City that is probably pretty reasonable. If you live in or around Sendai its about $180US one way and takes forever with multiple transfers. There is highway bus, but to go such a distance would likely take two full days of uncomfortably warm bus rides and two full nights of sleeping really poorly if you can even find a bus that does that particular route.taiheyo ferry

Then I stumbled across Taiheiyo Ferry. Taiheiyo Ferry services the ports of Nagoya, Sendai and Tomakomai. For prices as low as $40US one way you can get a ride from Sendai to Hokkaido in about 14 hours. The trip is done over night rather than during the day. This sounded like a pretty sweet deal so I decided to jump ship on land travel and head for the open sea.

The Digs and the Ride

The ferry is awesome. I’ve been on a few ferries and this one was very steady. There were times where I felt the pitch and yaw of the boat but not like the catamarans in Greece. The common areas are definitely nice. The decor is a little bland but its basically a floating hotel, unlike an overnight bus, which is basically a rolling prison sauna. There is a game center, 24 hour vending machines (with beer in them), karaoke room, several bars (with terrible hours but I mean, thats what the vending machines are for), ventilated indoor smoking rooms for those with a tobacco habit, a restaurant, a movie theater, live entertainment. Its basically a cruise ship lite. Incredibly clean restrooms, public bath (onsen style) although it’s more like a wave pool because of the constant swaying of the boat, as if it were on an ocean or something. The slippery floors in the onsen can be quite hazardous with the unsure footing of a sea faring vessel. There are a few comfy couches in the lounge area and some really not so comfy ones. Lots of plugs to charge electronics as well.taiheyo ferry

Sleeping arrangements were mediocre although we bought the two cheapest rooms available. I can imagine the suites and first class cabins are quite nice and on par with the common areas. On the way to Tomakomai we had individual berths which work like a capsule hotel and start at 5,000円 each, one way. Two levels of capsule style berths are available, one has a TV in it, the other doesn’t. We found that the berths with the curtains drawn got very stuffy and quite hot through the night. There is not a lot of room to store your stuff so I ended up cuddling with my snowboard. I was gentle.

The common room or “Japanese style” is the least expensive at 4,000円 per person one way. These are large tatami rooms with roughly twenty sleeping pads arranged around the room to fit as many people as possible. If the ferry is sold out (which I think is unlikely) you will get to know the people to your left and right very well. There are only about 5 or 6 inches of space separating the sleeping pads. Also the pillows in the common rooms are basically bricks. I’m not exaggerating. They are shaped like bricks, and while made of fabric, have zero give to them. Perfect if you are Japanese, horrible if you are used to actually being comfortable while you sleep. There are ladies only common rooms that require a key card if you are a lady and traveling by yourself.

(The cafe shakes… a lot)

I was a little disappointed with the lack of an outdoor deck because I am insane and I wanted to feel how crazy cold that siberian ocean air was.

My biggest complaint is very silly though. I understand that it is silly, but I’m still going to complain about it anyway. There was not even a pay as you go wi-fi available on the boat. Its like being transported back to the early nineties (the color scheme on the boat helped with the illusion of a time warp) when you didn’t have constant access to the interwebtubes. If we can get wifi on a plane, we can get it on a boat. Get with the 21st century. We brought our WiMAX+ device but at times out on the ocean we didn’t have any signal. Don’t count on any streaming services and download everything you want to watch/listen to on the boat before you get on the water. Service is shoddy after the boat leaves the harbor.

Pretty nice overall, the spartan sleeping conditions not with standing. B+

But how convenient was it?

taiheyo ferry

japanese page

Booking online is by no means particularly easy. There is a lot of rigamarole involved with an online ticket. First you have to sign up for an account and be able to use katakana on your keyboard. I also had numerous problems with their web page rejecting common characters as invalid inputs even though they were in Japanese. Adding Japanese characters to your computer input is easy. Just Google what you need for your operating system.

The process works like this: Fill out an online application form with your personal info to open an account. Once you get the email confirmation you can log in (you need a phone number for this, likely a Japanese one). Once you have confirmed your account you start by finding the route you want to take, then you’ll get a calendar and you choose your dates. They do not allow you to book very far in advance but if you wait too long the special deals will not be available. About 8 weeks before the departure date is ideal. The online advance booking price is half of the normal list price. You must book online and you must pay in advance.  Our berths would have been 10,000円 and 8,000円 each respectively if I hadn’t booked online during this special window. To book a return trip is really easy because you can go into your confirmed trips and click a button that says book reverse direction.

English reservation page

English reservation page

For online booking, it’s one of the more headache inducing set ups I’ve worked with, but you can book online so there is that, brush up on your Japanese for a successful booking. B-

The Value

I waited a bit too long on the return trip and they had “sold out” of their capsule berths at the 5,000円 price, so I booked the common rooms instead of which there were only two spots left. One in the all women room and one in the standard. Once we got on the boat I decided I would inquire about the upgrade price to regular berths. If you do change your mind about your quarters the upgrade price to change rooms on the boat is equal to the remaining half of your advance booking price plus the difference in price between the two berths or rooms.

My berth was 4,000円 (regular price is 8,000円) which I paid in advance. To change to the capsule berth, one grade above the common room was an extra 6,000円, more than I paid for the room in the first place. The regular price for the capsule berth is 10,000円 so they figure if you really want it you should pay regular price.  I didn’t pay for the upgrade but it did make me think, “Did they just preserve their pricing structure or did they lose a sale?”

rage face

rage face

I went and had a peek back in the capsule berths, an entire wing of them was completely empty. I don’t know if they have security do a bunk check or anything but after 9:00PM I didn’t see any staff from the boat wandering around. If you hate your common room you can probably find and empty capsule without paying for it. What are they going to do, kick you off the boat? Since they had unsold berths, I would have gladly paid the 1,000円 difference in my booking prices to upgrade, but not more than I paid for my original berth. So they effectively turned away a sale which they didn’t have in the first place. You could sell an extra two bunks for 1,000円 each or make no money at all and have empty sleeping quarters that wont be filled because the boat already left the dock, which makes more sense?

Enough of that, it’s just bad business to turn away money.

Speaking of extra cost, getting to and from the ferry terminals was actually much easier than I thought it would be. Once in Hokkaido there is a Chuo bus (reservations not necessary) and Donan bus (not sure about reservations) that go to Tomakomai station and Sapporo JR station. If you are planning on using JR trains to get to central Sapporo from the ferry terminal its about 2,200円 one way. If you fly to Sapporo your extra train cost is about 1400円 from the airport to downtown. The Chuo bus is 1,270円 all the way to Sapporo and you’ll have to get on that bus anyway unless you take a taxi to the train station. I would recommend taking the bus all the way; no transfers, it saves you money and it isn’t that long of a ride. In Sendai there is a city bus that goes from Nakanosakae station to the ferry terminal, but in the evening the timing may not be reliable. We took a taxi and it was 900円 to be dropped off right at the door.

The value compared to the very pricey travel methods of flight and hi-speed rail is phenomenal, especially if you book in advance. From Sendai, it’s sort of like paying for one night in a hotel, except you can’t leave the hotel, well, you could… but … never mind. What I’m saying is, if you can book in advance and don’t mind the sleeping arrangements, it is by far and away one of the best ways to get to Hokkaido. If you are on a tight schedule or prefer regular accommodations, the value starts to slip as you will eat up a lot of time getting to and from the ferry (and being on it). Lastly if you have to pay regular price, you are looking at 20,000円 round trip for a private sleeping berth. Flights start to look much more attractive at that price and if you live near a major hub, like Tokyo or Osaka, there are probably less expensive flight plans than what Sendai has to offer.

B provided you book far enough in advance to get the half price tickets. C- if you don’t.cost chart ferry

Overall I thought the ferry was actually pretty cool. We had a really good time hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and just relaxing in general. It is a very hassle free way to travel. If you are in Sendai and want to go to Hokkaido in summer or winter, the ferry is a good way to go.

Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

We can finally check another island off our list! Since moving to Japan, we have visited over twenty cities, but never left the island of Honshu. Two weeks ago, we went to Hokkaido to see the famous snow festival in Sapporo. Besides yuki matsuri, we fit in a couple other sites in Hokkaido, and slept on a ferry for the first time. You can read about the ferry experience here (Coming Soon!).

Yuki matsuri is a yearly 6-day winter wonderland where people from all over the globe create massive snow sculptures that remain on display day and night. It is rated as one of those must-see experiences, and it was definitely impressive. February is arguably the “worst” weather period for Hokkaido, as it is below freezing and often snowing. The festival coordinators do their best to provide fun winter activities throughout the day, but there is only so much fun one can have for extended periods outdoors in -7°C degree weather (even colder at night). Lots of food stalls line the main sculpture park, offering temporary respite from the cold, and since the festival features works from many countries, it is a great chance to get non-Japanese food. We particularly enjoyed the fantastic Indian cuisine in front of the huge snow Malaysian temple.

You can also watch singers and dancers perform on frigid outdoor stages, partake in ice skating and sledding, and see Japanese snowboarders and skiiers do tricks off an Olympic-style ski jump. One 14 year old snowboarder was fantastic and apparently devoid of fear. And… that’s about it. You can make a nice day of it, or day and a half, since there are three separate locations for ice sculptures, but with five days scheduled in our trip, we realized we’d have to fill up the time elsewhere.

While I’m sure Sapporo is a happening place in the summer, it can be a bit dull in the winter. What there is to do and see may be dampened by perpetual snowfall. Indoor activities it was then! Luckily, Sapporo boasts a nice subway system that is concise and easy to use, so you don’t have to do a ton of outdoor walking. I especially recommend the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. The temporary collection is rotated often, but contains many works by Japanese artists schooled in French impressionism and École de Paris. A five minute walk from the Nishi 18 Chome station, in winter the museum observatory overlooks a snow filled garden where you can relax on a couch with a good book (I took this time to read a personal account of autism by a Japanese teenager, check out The Reason I Jump for a fascinating narrative).

The special exhibit was a fantastic collection of the works of Ken-ichi Kuriyagama. He was a wonderful Japanese artist who created paintings of Hokkaido for tourism posters. 120 posters were on display along with 40 of the original paintings on canvas, in colors even more vibrant than the posters can imply. The paintings were not only stunning in their beautiful simplicity, but the collection led one back to the times when advertising was actual art. Frankly, it was very hard to go back to the subway station and look at all the heartless, digital ads after viewing that exhibit. When did we lose the desire for beauty in our search for commodities? Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in Japan.

Close to the art museum, one subway stop west at Maruyamakoen, is a bona-fide Louisiana-style southern restaurant, Dixie-Roux. If you are in the area (especially if you live in Japan and are a little tired of the culinary monotony) you must give it a try. Perhaps the number one selling point for me, outside of the fabulous inner décor, great service and wonderful food, was the drink menu. Nowhere in Japan have I seen mint juleps, hurricanes, or the crème-de-la-crème, a Cosmopolitan.

Yes, you heard right. What is a ubiquitous cocktail back home is impossible to get here. I have never seen uh cranberry, let alone cranberry juice, in Japan. How they can live without it is a mystery, so I immediately ordered one. It was perfection, although in the spirit of all things Japan, too small. The food itself was equally reminiscent of home and authentic. I sampled some local Hokkaido cheeses and bread and had a big bowl of brown roux gumbo. Sadly there were no fried green tomatoes or shrimp and grits on the menu, so I consoled myself with a second Cosmo and enjoyed the jazz music on the radio.

When the weather gives you snow, make snowmen; or hang out in museums…you know, same difference.

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Niseko – A pinnacle of powder

I’ll admit it. I’m a little arrogant when it comes to ski resorts. I grew up near Lake Tahoe, CA and my father got me started at age 6 on a pair of rental skis. My spur of the moment ski trips were to places like Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Kirkwood. Lake Tahoe doesn’t have the world’s greatest snow or most vertical feet, but its steep, deep and full of variety.  I’ve skied at Mt. Baker, Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor and Happo-one as well (read about my Hakuba trip herehere and here). I thought I was pretty spoiled.

Then, I went to Niseko. Now I am really spoiled.

Niseko

you can't tell but there is a huge smile on my face

you can’t tell but there is a huge smile on my face

The snow in Niseko, as any ski travel site will tell you, is absolutely legendary. I read once that a lot of foreigners think that the Japanese word for powder snow is, “niseko,” because the resort has become synonymous with great snow. It’s not likely I can add anything to the conversation by telling you about how the Gobi Desert and the Sea of Japan make freaky weather-love and science together to create soft dry fluffy powder that falls at world record rates. I won’t tell you that boarding through Niseko snow is like flying, even when it’s tracked out. I’m not going to tell you about any of that.

I spent nearly two full days there and I can say it was some of the best boarding in my life. It wasn’t simply the snow, it was more than that. The variety at Niseko (if you buy the more expensive all resort pass, WHICH I DID) is awesome. There is so much to do, plenty of reasonably steep runs but more over any of the diamond runs that run from the uppermost lifts allow you to get pretty much anywhere on the mountain. There are banked gully runs (like a natural half pipe with TREES!), wide open bowls, tree runs, groomed runs, trick parks, and so much intermediate and easy stuff that I don’t think you could ski the whole place in three full days. And that’s not even counting back country.

It's always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

It’s always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

The view on a sunny day at Niseko is absolutely incredible as well. Yotei-san, which is affectionately referred to as “Kita-Fuji” (North Fuji), is a slightly smaller version of the famous Fuji-san, a perfectly conical volcano that basically fills your entire field of vision. It reminded me of old school racing arcade games like, Cruisin U.S.A., where the background is static and never changes. Sadly I was still having issues with my Contour camera because Apple hates backwards compatibility on non-Apple peripherals. So, I don’t have any awesome powder videos with Yotei in the background. You’ll have to take my word for it.

(watch the clouds, they never move – that’s what Yotei-san is like as you go down the mountain)

But like I said earlier, it wasn’t the snow, the variety, or the view that made Niseko so mind-blowingly awesome. I loved it because it was quiet. For being the most popular mountain in Hokkaido and maybe in Japan, and the dearth of Aussies that take over the town at night not-with-standing, the mountain itself was peaceful. For a solitary skier or boarder it made the experience that much more memorable.

Despite being a holiday weekend, I only had to wait in line once. Once. I can’t remember ever not waiting in a line at Northstar on a holiday weekend. Off the lift there were groups of people picking their lines but there are so many runs, I just had to pick the one they didn’t. Finally to really get your money’s worth, being able to get right back on lift after a run is great, provided you aren’t marooned in shoulder deep powder somewhere. I was struck constantly by being alone on the hill even though I knew the place was crowded. I could see other skiers and boarders but they might as well have been on another planet. There is a lot of space to spread out and make the most of the fresh pow, the stunning view, and the variety of Niseko.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Something else occurred to me, do I like boarding with others or can I do board all by myself? I’m still not sure. Sometimes when you do really awesome stuff you want to make sure others saw it because, “That was awesome, did you see that!?” When you board on your own there is never any arguing about what run to take and wasting time not boarding. Plus singles get through the lines faster. Experiences are sometimes better when you share them with others and in general I prefer company to being alone but with snowboarding, I haven’t made up my mind.

Enough philosolophisizing, the G2 gate to the summit of An’nupuri-Niseko ranks at least in the top three runs of my life; along with conquering, “The Wall” at Kirkwood and doing the summit run at Mt. Bachelor. It starts with an “easy” 20 minute hike to the summit and then you drop into a powder filled bowl that funnels you into a 2 to 3km gully which then spits you out through a birch and cedar forest that could a set piece from Game of Thrones, eventually shooting out near the Nook restaurant at the base of the An’nupuri Resort.

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Speaking of restaurants, my only complaint about Niseko, and it’s a minor one, is that the food was too expensive. At least at the Nook it was. That was the only place I ate at (on the mountain). I had become accustomed to the great value offered by the restaurants in Japanese ski resorts but the Nook was more like American ski resort pricing. Hot tea was 400円 and my small beef bowl was 1,000円. Big beers were 1,050円. The food prices were a minor inconvenience for such an awesome place to snowboard.

This hot dog stand was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain.

Hokkai-dog was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain. +1 for the pun.

Getting to Niseko is actually easier than it looks considering its relative distance from Sapporo. There are four main bus companies that all operate daily service from both Sapporo Station and from New Chitose Airport. Some bus packages include round trip and your lift ticket. During the busy season they can get booked up so definitely make reservations if you can. If not you can check out my review of Chuo Bus here for more details (Coming Soon).

Niseko is a fantastic place to spend a week or more going up to the top of the mountain and back down again but it will be expensive. Accomodations and food in the area are not cheap. Is it worth it? If you love skiing or snowboarding, totally. I will have to find my way back eventually. Save your coin and get up to Hokkaido for some of the best boarding in the world.